- By Francis Vivian
- First published: UK: Herbert Jenkins, 1959
- Availability: Dean Street Press, 2019, introduction by Curtis Evans
THUD! BIFFO! The chief reporter knocks his editor out cold. WHAM! SOCKO! His fist slams into the council reporter’s jaw. SMACK! WOWEE! He plants one on the editor’s pretty niece. (A kiss, that is.)
I have been a regional journalist for three years, and never punched out an editor. Or murdered one, either. But then I never worked for someone like Edward Packham, owner of the Carrbank Borough News.
“He did not care a damn whom he upset or offended, and he had smacked down on so many burgesses of Carrbank that the paper had become known as Packham’s Pillory.”
Someone hated Packham enough to stab him in the back and arrange his corpse in a makeshift pillory – a mocking reference to his paper’s nickname.
Dead Opposite the Church was Francis Vivian’s final detective story; a light but engaging mystery whose workplace setting, vivid characters, and naturalistic dialogue reminded me of D.M. Devine. The murderer comes as no surprise, although there is no definite clue.
The chief appeal is the newspaper setting. Vivian was at one time assistant editor of the Nottinghamshire Free Press. His depiction of working for a small paper rings true – evening assignments, hurrying to meet deadlines, labouring to produce something that might end up as fish-and-chip wrapping, and the like. But none of the papers I’ve worked for have had tyrannical editors or reporters quite so ready with their fists.
Vivian focuses on the private life of the paper – staff politics and their relationships (both animus and amorous) – rather than the public side. This is one of the few newspaper-set stories in which the editor is not murdered because of a disastrous policy, or because he knew too much about prominent figures. (Compare the Detection Club’s Ask a Policeman, C. St. John Sprigg‘s Fatality in Fleet Street, or Vernon Loder‘s Death of an Editor.) I was rather surprised to find that it didn’t involve council politics (sometimes toxic), the business community, or investigation into a local crime.
Vivian is also concerned with the ethics of journalism. Packham is an irresponsible editor; his obsession with ‘hard-hitting news’ at all costs has blinded him to the people involved, and his staff summer the same flaw. A subplot concerns the hanging of a young delinquent; Packham’s blatant disregard for laws regarding identifying minors (s. 49 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933) made a youth into a notorious figure; the notoriety-hungry kid went from trespass to shop-breaking, then to rape and murder – and finally to the gallows.
The chief reporter, Crompton, has almost “reached the point where people are just names on paper, lacking life, mere walking robots, people to be pursued because they could provide a story.”
“And all you are doing is satisfying two very elementary human urges – for people to see their own name in print, and for people to pry into the lives of others. You are the man sitting on a wall, telling the people on one side of it how the people on the other side are behaving to their friends and relatives. Week after week your front-page headlines tell how Man Beats Dog To Death or how Unconscious Girl Was Raped. And if there are no heads like that in the News you apologise to your friends because the paper happens to be dull that week! … It’s also slanderous, but it happens to be true. Stir the least-worthy emotions of your readers and you are a good reporter. You don’t think in terms of human stories, but in terms of good headlines. When that awful character threw his dog into a sludge-filled and disused quarry last winter, and the dog was rescued by a fireman, you dealt first with the evil action of the man, and then with the plight of the dog, and the fireman’s heroism came in a poor third.”
The speaker is the woman who has inherited the ownership of the paper from Packham; there’s every indication that under her, the paper will become more people-focused and more responsible. And young Crompton will be taken in hand by two women; the other is the part-owner, soon to become his wife.
The best regional papers serve the community, rather than alienating it. Journalists are concerned with truth, of course. We strive to write stories that are balanced; that report the complexities of an issue, the divergent views, objectively and accurately; that provide readers with enough evidence to decide for themselves – particularly if it’s a complex issue like black deaths in custody or a vote to demerge a town from the local government area. An older journalist once remarked that if all the parties concerned are irritated, then the story has hit the sweet spot; but I’ve found it’s better if they like your story; I’ve been told several times that my story has dealt with both their side and their opponents’ fairly and respectfully.
Nor does an entirely aggressive news policy like Packham’s help. Some of the most rewarding stories are about local people doing good things in the community – whether it’s neighbours helping each other through drought; refugees starting a new life; building the biggest community-owned solar farm in the country; or organisations like Lions, Rotary, and the Country Women’s Association that are the lifeblood of a country town.
But we should never forget the people involved. After all, the people we write about are the people whom we meet daily – and we want them to talk to us again! I’ve been lucky to meet some fascinating people: public figures, of course, politicians, playwrights, etc., but also African circus-masters; an artist who only discovered he was Indigenous in middle age; a woman who built a chainmail dragon in her living-room; and women determined to succeed in the male-dominated trucking industry.
And we tell their stories. But we might not tell everything we know, particularly if it’s a sensitive issue. We do try to be sympathetic and discreet, and balance respect for privacy against public interest. (These days, too, the Editors’ Code of Practice requires it.)
When we write stories about people in remission from cancer, or an unmarried mother reunited with her son decades after he was taken from her, we might send the people involved a copy of the story to read before it goes to press. A mother might want to talk us about a fundraiser to support her daughter with leukaemia. The paper can get that message out, and do some good. But the mother might ask us not to reveal that the little girl is unlikely to recover. Why should we turn that grief into entertainment, or cause needless pain?
And I’ll go back to complaining about bad detective stories tomorrow.